Why town hall protesters are helping Rick Santorum

at 11:30 AM ET, 01/08/2012

HOLLIS, N.H. – If you didn’t know better, you’d think Rick Santorum enjoys being grilled by protesters.

In fact, he probably does. And he should.

The former Pennsylvania senator has been inundated at his New Hampshire events with questions from unsympathetic voices in recent days, pressing him mostly on gay rights but also on issues like the separation of church and state. It started with an exchange at a college Thursday in which Santorum set about comparing the legalization of gay marriage to the legalization of polygamy.
Rick Santorum jousts with an antagonist during an appearance Thursday in New Hampshire. (Source: CBS News)

The questions are generally posed by members of a coterie of young political activists who stake out Santorum’s appearances early in hopes of catching him off-guard with questions on social issues.

It hasn’t worked yet. And in fact, one could argue that this is exactly what Santorum wants.

By debating social issues with what are often not-so-versed young antagonists, Santorum is creating oodles of YouTube clips and conflicts that the media loves to cover. And that footage can probably only help him in a Republican presidential contest.

It’s essentially Chris Christie light (so to speak). Santorum invites the jousting because he knows he can handle it and come out on top – at least in the eyes of the socially conservative voters he relies upon.

Santorum’s portrayal by some as an angry candidate (see the Saturday Night Live sketches for more on this) is more about the content and tone of his remarks than his temperament. He’s actually very cool under cross-examination. And so far, the young people asking him questions haven’t been able to lure him into losing that cool or saying something that could cause long-term damage in a GOP primary.

How does this play in the general election? Well one could make the case that he’s marginalizing himself, as the Post’s Rosalind Helderman points out. But for now, Santorum seems to be eating it up.

At an event here Saturday, Santorum was asked by a flannel-clad young man why, if the Constitution calls for a separation of church and state, he includes the word “faith” on his campaign signs.

Santorum, as he often does, tried to turn the situation into a debate with his not-so-prepared opponent.

“Let me ask you a question back: What does the 1st Amendment say with respect to religion?” Santorum posited.

The young man struggled to form a response: “It says that church should be completely kept out of government…”

The crowd erupted in laughter.

“This is good stuff!” Santorum joined them, before pointing out that the Constitution doesn’t actually use the word “separation” and that young people are often misled on that count.

“That’s the way it should be,” protested one young female opponent.

Santorum allowed her that opinion and continued making his case.

“We should be teaching the truth, and what is the truth?” Santorum said. “The truth is, we believe in the free exercise of religion.”

Say what you want about the position Santorum is taking here; it plays well to the people whose votes he needs in New Hampshire and beyond, on the way to the GOP nomination.

At one point, before Santorum took the stage, a state senator supporting his campaign asked how many people in the audience were from out-of-state, and a strong majority in attendance raised their hands – including those who made little secret of opposing his candidacy.

Many of these “political tourists,” as they have come to be called, are doing Santorum a service right now. The conservative movement likes nothing better than a martyr for the cause.

 
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